The rebirth of Drayton Tower and the benefits of greater downtown residential density

I’ve been planning a big post about residential density for several weeks, but I keep putting it off.

So this is just going to be a short post on that subject.

Subject A: Adam Van Brimmer’s Drayton Tower revival: Refurbished iconic apartment building leasing units again in today’s Savannah Morning News. The much-hated and sometimes-loved international style apartment building in the heart of Savannah’s Landmark Historic District won’t have as many apartments as it did before the largely failed efforts to turn it into high-end condos (188 apartments then, 99 now), but it’s springing back to life and will pumping people and money into the downtown economy again.

Take special note of the final few paragraphs of that article (emphasis added):

Drayton Tower’s rebirth is being seen as a boon for the surrounding neighborhood and all of downtown. The building will eventually house 150-plus residents, many of them financially affluent, judging by the lease rates. Among those “very bullish” on the new Drayton Tower is the owner of Parker’s Market, a gourmet convenience store located a half block north of the building.

“The demand for their product exists, and I think it will be very successful,” Greg Parker said. “Savannah needs more density. I am excited for Parker’s Market but also for Savannah.”

Echoing Parker’s sentiments on the importance of increasing the number of downtown residents was Daniel Carey with the Historic Savannah Foundation. He also appreciates the improvements made to the building’s exterior, particularly the trademark green windows.

“It is an important building,” Carey said. “It’s such a juxtaposition to all the other buildings in the landmark district, and it’s something we have come to appreciate and respect.”

Back when I first started writing columns — in 2000 — density was a hard sell. Downtown residents and residents of struggling adjacent neighborhoods typically saw density as a negative. They feared parking woes would increase, cheap rental units would take over, crime would increase — and so on.

But over the last decade the conversation has shifted. As I have noted many times, there are far fewer residents on downtown’s high ground than the area once had and that it can support. Restrictions on greater residential density have been a major culprit in the creep of non-residential commercial uses and in the explosion in the number of hotels. Those trends have skewed the downtown economy further and further away from the needs of residents.

And the whiners — like some of the typical commenters on SavannahNow — complaining about high rents are missing a key point. Many of the residents of Drayton Tower will have exactly $0 per month — or something close to it — in transportation costs. They’ll walk everywhere. Or ride bikes. Or take SCAD’s shuttles.

I wrote a couple of key columns (or so I think) about density recently: Heyward Apartments leasing at Habersham and Bolton and Looking at benefits of greater residential density.

From the latter:

Savannah’s urban design and historical land-use patterns dictate a certain ratio of commercial versus residential properties.

We have a number of important commercial corridors downtown, including Broughton Street, River Street, Bay Street, MLK, Abercorn Street and Bull Street. There are key pockets of commercial activity elsewhere too, including the City Market area and the Downtown Design District along Whitaker Street.

This balance of residential and commercial uses has changed relatively little since Savannah was founded. The design worked well for a couple of centuries, but the decline in residential density and other cultural trends in the latter half of the 20th century devastated the downtown commercial sector.

To put it simply, there aren’t anywhere near enough downtown residents to support all the downtown commercial areas.

The void has largely been filled by tourists, which has prompted commercial investment that caters primarily to that sector. Zoning codes have skewed things further by encouraging hotels rather than apartments.

I’m painting with a broad brush in this short column. Obviously, you can find all sorts of exceptions, and it’s worth noting that commercial traffic varies considerably by neighborhood and by time of day.

But we’d have more neighborhood businesses in the greater downtown area if we had more residents in those neighborhoods.

We’d simply have a stronger neighborhood fabric.

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